Fernand Lopez is the boss of the MMA Factory, a recognized training structure and true factory for champions in mixed martial arts (MMA). This renowned coach is also the Sports Director of the ARES Fighting Championship, a new “African-European” MMA league. For RFI, he evokes the current events of the discipline and its future in Africa. Interview.
RFI : Fernand Lopez, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the most powerful Mixed Martial Arts League (MMA) in the world, has been trying to organize an event in April, while the world of sport is paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic. We talked about a casino, on a Native American reservation, as a theater of combat. What did you think of this desire to maintain UFC 249, despite the context ?
Fernand Lopez : It’s a complex question that I would refrain from making a judgment on or making personal comments about. I think that Dana White and the UFC have their way of being market leaders. They tried to stay on the move, to maintain events, despite the situation. This is something you can admire when you see the progress of MMA over the past twenty years. They have something to do with it. They were pioneers. They have always pushed the limits. Didn’t they come close to the limit this time? I do not know…
I am sports director at ARES Fighting Championship. Even if my decision was in the other direction, namely to quickly cancel our events and adapt to the pandemic, I still admire the UFC and Dana White. […] If it weren’t for people like him, who crossed the line sometimes and turned things upside down, maybe MMA wouldn’t be there. Sometimes you need creative, go-getter and reckless people. […]
The Cameroonian Francis Ngannou, whom you know very well, was to participate in UFC 249. What do you think of his future opponent, the Surinamese Jairzinho Rozenstruik ?
It’s a beast! It’s a real contender, a future champion. We no longer have to present it and we no longer have doubts about it. He’s pretty solid and strong, with almost the same lethal weapon as Francis. However, Francis is far above in terms of experience, complementarity. It is quite complete, whether in ground combat or wrestling. He has finalized four or five opponents during his career. And then, it is much more powerful, much more athletic, more precise. Obviously, Francis Ngannou will win. However, we are in the queen category: that of heavyweights. Anyone can fall. You have to be very careful.
Francis Ngannou has dispatched his last three fights. However, the UFC has yet to offer him a second chance to fight for the heavyweight title after losing in January 2018 to current star Stipe Miocic. How do you explain this situation ?
There are many factors. Already, switchgear is not done automatically on the basis of sports performance. They are also done on the basis of salable matches. The UFC has a table from which it will estimate which fights were the most sold in pay per view. Then, Dana White will choose the fight which seems to him to be the most requested, the most potentially profitable.
Then it’s maybe politics… At one point, Francis got a little angry with the UFC. Dana White made statements about it. Statements that I had at the time approved. I thought Francis had reached a milestone. Those who didn’t know him well enough might think he hadn’t changed. When he had changed at some point, whether it was about his ego or his way of behaving. I think it must have annoyed the employees of the UFC and their president.
This situation may also be linked to the unavailability of other athletes. They may say that Francis is too dangerous and too strong …
This situation is undoubtedly linked to several factors. I don’t want to go on about a reason. But Francis Ngannou is a serious challenger for the belt, who deserves a chance. And there is no doubt that he will be world champion very soon.
You have helped create a league called the ARES Fighting Championship. Can you tell us the story of this league which is defined as “ Afro-European “ ?
This is mainly the story of Vivendi Sports. Vivendi is a behemoth of media and communication. It has within it a branch called Vivendi Sports. One of the directors of Vivendi Sports is the chairman of ARES FC. It’s Robins Tchale-Watchou who was the president of Provale, the rugby union. He is the head of ARES.
As for the name, it is a reference to Greek mythology and its god of war. Robins Tchale-Watchou had this project. Vivendi then called upon me for the sporting direction and the sports orientation of the league.
She wants to be African-European. First, in terms of geography. But also by having a number of African athletes. Because the goal is also to hatch and make known a certain number of young African talents. Young hopefuls who could be the Francis Ngannou, the Kamaru usman where the Israel adesanya of tomorrow. […]
Africa has great talents. But they are scattered around the world. France has very good prospects, but who have to fight abroad[[MMA was an illegal discipline in France, until now, Editor’s note]. In any case, these are the two territories on which we want to expand, at least at the beginning. We want to bring a very good quality of MMA, to French and Africans. We want to become, in the medium term, the second world league after the UFC.
The big revelation of the first edition of ARES, in Dakar, was Reug Reug. He’s a star in Senegal, but he’s much less known elsewhere. Can you introduce us to this former wrestler ?
It is a force of nature. He’s young. It weighs 120 kilos but with a very small fatty mass. It has a big explosiveness. He has wrestled all his life. He has fought a very large number of fights, in the arenas. […]
From a sporting point of view, I was very pleasantly surprised. Because transferring motor skills between traditional wrestling and MMA is quite complicated. Yet he did it brilliantly. However, he faced an experienced opponent, Sofiane Boukichou who fought for the Cage Warriors league. […] But Reug Reug literally stepped on it, thanks to a very big striking power, explosiveness and power which are exceptional, as well as incredible endurance! He attacked the fight foot to the floor. We thought that in the second round he was going to be exhausted. But no, he rushed at him and he finished the fight. To me it’s a revelation. I am literally in love with this youngster.
Is it possible to train good MMA fighters directly in Africa, when you know that you need a minimum of equipment and infrastructure to practice this discipline well ?
I think there is no shortage of infrastructure in Africa. MMA is a new sport. What is missing in Africa is the knowledge economy about sport. Whenever I go to Africa, I try to place a seminar, free training somewhere, to humbly offer what I already know and thus bring a little knowledge. Because that’s what will make the difference. Managers and coaches must have correct and decent knowledge of the principles and factors of sports performance in MMA. I’m talking about “Fight IQ”[[intelligence displayed during a fight, Editor’s note]. Today, few people in Africa know what a Fight IQ is. They are still focused on physical qualities such as strength, endurance, coordination, flexibility, power … But few people will have the pedagogy, didactics to teach and develop the intelligence quotient of the fighter. This is what Africa lacks. But, if not, I don’t worry about hardware issues. We know how to manage. I think we need to train Africans. Thanks to that, we’ll see some very beautiful champions from Africa hatch.